Tiwanaku, Bolivia – May 24, 2019
Friday morning was cold and clear, 1-degree Celcius (34-degrees Fahrenheit). The clear skies bode well for my photography at Tiwanaku, my destination that day.
Right at the appointed hour, 08:00, Mariela, and her driver, Nico, arrived to pick me up for my guided tour at my residence (3,407 meters (11,180 feet)). As one will read, the altitude is a topic of interest throughout the blog. Mariela is the owner of her tour company, Mariela’s Bolivia. One can find her on Facebook by searching for Mariela’s Bolivia. Homebase for her company is in La Paz, but she offers tours throughout the area. I cannot recommend her highly enough. I will use her for additional trips soon.
As I found out throughout the day, the tour was all-inclusive. When I got into the van, she immediately gave me a fabric bag with her logo. Inside the bag were a liter bottle of water, two snack bars, a bag of chocolate-covered puffed rice, and two tangerines. She also took care of all Teleférico fares, Tiwanaku entry fees, and lunch.
Both Mariela and Nico were friendly and personable. Since my Spanish skills are not that good, it is a bonus that they both speak perfect English.
Our first destination was the Irpawi station of the green line of the Teleférico. The plan was for Mariela and me to ride the Teleférico to the last station of the blue line. Nico would meet us at that stop. Rush-hour traffic was heavy, but we made it to the green line station in good time. Mariela and I jumped out of the van and entered the station. Since it was rush-hour, there were a lot of people in the station. When I usually ride the Teleférico in the morning, it is around 06:00…not as many people then!
We entered an empty gondola and sat by the far window. Immediately, another six people came into the gondola. The door closed and we began the ascent from Irpawi. Mariela started to share all sorts of information with me about Bolivia and La Paz. As a history buff, I found the information very interesting.
Arriving at the first intermediate station on the green line, the Teleférico attendant asked us all to scoot closer. I could see a queue of people waiting to get into a gondola. By getting closer, we were able to accommodate two additional passengers.
In about twenty minutes, we made it to the final station on the green line. That is also the beginning of the yellow line, our next transport. There were very few people going our direction on the yellow line, so only two other passengers joined us. Mariela continued telling me about her city and country. One fact I found startling; at last count, some 70,000 people rode the yellow line daily from El Alto to La Paz and back again.
My first venture onto the yellow line provided a spectacular view of the recent horrific landslide. The civil engineering teams working there accomplished a lot, but there is still a lot of work required. Several homes and buildings continue to be at risk of slipping down the hillside. The landslide impacted at least one hundred families. Amazingly, there were only three casualties.
From the last mid-point station to the final station atop El Alto, the yellow line seems to go absolutely straight up! I do not think the ride is for the squeamish. Arriving at the Qhana Pata station in El Alto, we saw some of the 70,000 people queued up for the trip down to La Paz.
We switched to the silver line and ultimately to the blue line. As we flew over El Alto, we saw dozens and dozens of people readying for the Friday markets. At one point, the silver line crosses above a cliff. As seems to be the norm in La Paz, structures hugged the edge. I believe they were shops of some sort, not homes.
El Alto is at about 4,115 meters (13,500 feet) in altitude. That is roughly 609 meters (2,000 feet) higher than my house.
During the switch from silver to blue, I took the opportunity to photograph a map of all the Teleférico lines. I had not previously seen that.
The blue line goes directly down the center of Avenida 16 de Julio. It seems it will never end. Along that avenue, one begins to see cholets. The word cholet combines the word cholo, a pejorative term, and chalet, as in Swiss chalet. Most buildings in La Paz and El Alto are unfinished, with the iconic exposed red bricks. That meager finish allows the owner to escape some of the taxes imposed on a finished structure. The cholets are finished, some to a fare-thee-well. That brings on the mandatory taxes.
The ground floor is typically set aside for businesses. The next couple of levels are event spaces available for rental. The owner usually lives on the upper floors. The embassy recently offered a cholita wrestling event, and the venue was a cholet.
When Leslie and I recently visited the gallery of the artist Mamani Mamani, I remember seeing a photograph of some buildings on which he painted some murals (see the blog MAMAN!MAMANi). Today I saw those buildings from the Teleférico. I had no idea they were so far away.
Below the Teleférico, we saw nothing but gridlock! I felt sorry for Nicco down there somewhere. Regardless, we made it to the final station of the blue line. There, an enormous Friday market was in full swing. Nico was not there yet. However, after just a few photographs, Nico arrived. Mariela and I got back in the van.
Nico maneuvered the van through the crazy traffic until we got to Route 1. From there, it was smooth sailing toward Tiwanaku, until we arrived at the village of Laja. There is a tollbooth in that village. After obtaining the toll-ticket, there is a police checkpoint. The police officer looked at Nico’s driver’s license, asked where we were going, and quickly waved us through the checkpoint.
About 19 kilometers (12 miles) from Tiwanaku, Nico pulled off the road at an overlook. The elevation is about 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). This particular overlook affords one an epic view of the Cordillera Real (Royal Range of the Andes). In this area of Bolivia, there is about 120-180 kilometers (74-112 miles) line of Andean peaks always covered in snow. The difference in distance depends on the information source one uses. Suffice it to say, the range at this overlook is stunning. Even without the best light that morning, the mountain peaks are still a fantastic amazing sight.
After traveling a little more than two hours, we arrived at the village of Tiwanaku. It is the site of two famous and ancient archaeological sites, Tiwanaku and Puma Punku. I noticed train tracks in front of an old building that must have been the train depot at one time. I believe there is a special train one can ride from the La Paz area to Tiwanaku periodically. Schoolchildren visiting the sites most often use it. A sign near the old building indicated the altitude at Tiwanaku is 3,870 meters (12,697 feet). Mariela purchased the tickets for our tour at the depot building.
First on our itinerary was a visit to the two museums in Tiwanaku, the Museo Ceramico (Ceramic Museum) and the Museo Lítico (Lithic Museum – as in monolithic). Mariela and I first entered the Museo Ceramico. It was instantly evident that either the heat was not on or there was no heating system. Regardless, the museum helps paint a picture of the history of the area. The information offered by Mariela helped bring the culture into focus. The museum is where one begins to encounter the mystery surrounding Tiwanaku and Puma Punku. Tiwanaku became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. According to the UNESCO site, Tiwanaku flourished as a city between 400 A.D. and 900 A.D. However, some materials in the museum date the civilization as far back as 15,000 B.C. That is quite a range!
The museum displays many types of ceramics used in both everyday life and ceremonial life. Additionally, one can view some weaponry, jewelry, and even a mummy found at Tiwanaku. Maybe one of the most controversial items on display is the distended human skull. That one skull is the tip of the iceberg as the museum owns many others. No one knows the methods used to distend the skulls. No tools or records of the activity survived. Some have said the skulls might not be human, but rather extra-terrestrial. I certainly do not know, but I can say it was one of the oddest things I have seen. The museum does not allow photography, so I have no images to share.
Departing the Museo Ceramico, we walked next door to the Museo Lítico which showcase the stone monoliths found at the Tiwanaku site. The Bennett monolith is the star of the show. Wendell C. Bennett, an American archaeologist from Indiana is credited with discovering the monolith in 1932; thus the name. Relocated to the city of La Paz after its discovery, it took nearly 70-years to return the monolith to Tiwanaku. The monolith is almost 7.6 meters (25 feet) tall. One of its more unique features is the backward right hand. More on this later in the blog.
Exiting the museum, we headed to the archaeological site of Tiwanaku! Directly across the street from the museum is the main entrance. From the entry point to the site was roughly 335 meters (1,100 feet). The benefit of being with a knowledgeable guide is that she knew the shortcut. Nico picked us up and drove to the north side of the site. From there, our walk to the site was a mere 33 meters (110 feet)!
Approaching the site, one sees the rock wall of the Kalasasaya Temple, but what catches the eye is the Templo Semisubterráneo (semi-subterranean temple). That is a large, square temple excavated about 2.5 to 3 meters (8 to 10 feet) into the earth. Stone blocks make up the walls. The most significant blocks are maybe 30 by 60 centimeters (12 inches by 24 inches). The stones are nicely carved and fit together very well without any visible type of mortar. The seams are tight, but not microscopically tight. The face of some of the stones show what appear to be tool marks, but overall, they are smooth. Each of the corners of the walls appears to be very close to 90-degrees. Interspersed throughout the walls are some much larger stones, some are monolithic.
On each of the four walls are carved heads, 170 to be exact. The carved heads are much closer to the ground than to the top of the wall. I thought that was odd. However, what is even more curious is the shape and design of some of the heads. I saw at least two that could pass for our current belief of the looks of extra-terrestrials. Some of the carvings seem to have turbans, something not known in the area in ancient times. At least one of the heads appeared to be a skull, much like the distended skull in the Museo Ceramico. Some of the objects have small noses, while others have quite broad noses. Likewise, there are thin lips and quite thick lips represented. Some of these features were not common in the area in ancient times.
The massive monolith in the center of the temple is not without its controversy. Known as the Bearded monolith, it sports a thick beard and mustache. The indigenous peoples are not known for such hairy faces. So, the question remains, after whom is the monolith fashioned? Just another of the many Tiwanaku mysteries.
Exiting the temple, one looks directly at the Akapana Pyramid, the third and tallest structure at Tiwanaku, although not exceedingly excavated. Mariela offered to walk with me to the top. I opted not to do that, which meant our attention turned to the Kalasasaya Temple.
The east wall of Kalasasaya Temple is roughly parallel to the west wall of the Templo Semisubterráneo. An ancient set of seven stairs appears to have been the main entrance to the temple in ancient times. The stairs lead to a gate and ultimately to the Ponce monolith. Well worn, the stairs are not open to the public. To enter the temple, we walked along the north wall until we arrived at a much smaller set of seven stairs. Going up the stairs, we made it to the topmost level of the temple.
We walked directly to the Sun Gate. This gate, though carved from stone, is not similar at all to the other rock at the temples. The face of the gate is incredibly smooth. One cannot see any tool marks. Precisely cut 90-degree angles are on either side of and above the opening. Just how was this stone carved? How was the stone transported to this spot? Since there are no signs of stone chips, where did the carving occur? No one knows the answer to these questions. There are many theories, but no proof to date.
At the very top of the stone, above the opening, is an intricate carving of what archaeologists think is the Sun God. To either side and below the Sun God are four lines of figures. The lower line may have been a calendar. The other three lines contain 48 identical winged figures. Lastly, one cannot miss the enormous crack at the upper part of the stone. Some believe that the break is the result of a lightning strike. I disagree with that theory. If lightning is the cause of the crack, I think there would be much more significant damage on the top portion of the gate.
The backside of the gate is not as intricate, but it still has the characteristic 90-degree angles and smooth finishes.
Our next stop was the El Fraile (the Friar) monolith. This monolith is well known for its contrasting colors of the stone. At the monolith we stood near a group of school children, also touring the sites. According to their jackets, the children hailed from the Villa Tunari neighborhood of El Alto. While standing there, Mariela continued to speak to me in English. Hearing the English and the fact that I was not Bolivian seemed to be of more interest to the children than the monolith. Several of them smiled and said hello to me as they departed the monolith.
The El Fraile monolith, like several others, has a unique characteristic. The right-hand is backward, and in the left, El Fraile holds a chalice. The fingers on the left side look natural, holding the cup. In the right hand is what appears to be a scepter; however, if one looks closely, the fingers of the right-hand point in the wrong direction. Another question, why? There may be theories, but no one seems to know for sure.
Along the north and south walls of a portion of the temple are 14 structures, seven on each side. They appear like tombs. Archaeologists believe they may have housed the mummies of leaders or ancestors of the Tiwanaku society. I wonder if that is where the mummy in the Museo Ceramico originated?
While I read a sign about the tombs, Mariela asked me to stay where I was. She disappeared on the opposite side of the wall. Suddenly I heard my name called, but no one was around me. I finally realized it was Mariela speaking to me through a small hole in the wall. Even though she whispered what she said, I heard it all very plainly. The holes in the wall are not only round. They have interior undulations that seem to mimic the inner ear. The holes prompt more questions. Why are the holes there? How were they carved so precisely? The answer appears to be that there are no answers.
In the center of the tombs stands the Ponce monolith. In the bright sunlight, it is easy to see the detailed carvings on this monolith; including the backward right hand. The “belt” of Ponce has a repeating pattern of what seems to be a crab. Those are in addition to the intricate designs on the headdress, face, chest, and fingers. The monolith has what looks like a mid-shin pair of shorts or breechclout, festooned with circles and what looks like peace signs. One theory holds these tracked centuries of solar and lunar eclipses.
On the back of the head of Ponce, one sees what looks like braids or dreadlocks. An unusual hairstyle for that part of the world in ancient times. At the base of the neck on the right side, a large chunk of stone is missing. Spanish explorers possibly tried to decapitate the monolith as they did with so many others at the Tiwanaku site.
Descending from the Kalasasaya Temple, the final monolith we saw was the Descabezado (Headless) monolith. As the name implies, this monolith has no head. The stone looks like the stone used for the Bearded monolith. Archaeologists believe the monolith dates from 100 B.C. to 400 A.D.
We departed the Tiwanaku site and walked the 33 meters (110 feet) back toward the van. At the parking area was a woman selling tourist souvenirs. Of course, I had to buy something. After I completed the transaction, she was kind enough to allow me to take her portrait.
Leaving the parking area, we began our drive to the lunch restaurant. On the way, we passed a unique adobe structure. It seemed like Bolivia adobe meets Hobbiton. Nico was kind enough to stop to allow me to take a photograph. Upon closer inspection, it was evident that if I tried to enter the low front door, I would undoubtedly bump my head on some of the even lower ceilings! Because of that, I decided I would not go in!
In a matter of minutes, Nico parked in front of the restaurant Taypi Uta. That means “central house” in the Aymara language. The owner built the restaurant and a sort of museum on the rest of the grounds. The restaurant is modern, spacious, and very clean.
Our lunch, included in the price of the tour, was a Bolivian buffet. It was delicious. Our server, the owner’s daughter, brought our first course; sopa de trigo or wheat soup. As soon as we finished our soup, the server placed a small table with a traditional cloth next to our dining table. On the table, she placed three plates and ten small bowls. The bowls contained the buffet. I tried a little bit of everything.
One of the potato dishes was chuño. They are a dark-colored potato, dried in some manner that allows them to be stored almost indefinitely. They are not my favorite. The potatoes lack taste. My three favorite foods were the fried quinoa, the fried trucha (trout), and the llama. The bowls may look small, but we were all sated by the end of our lunch. That did not stop our server from bringing some yogurt for dessert. It had some banana and quinoa on top. I took a couple of bites, but yogurt is not one of my favorites.
Mariela noted that if we were working in a nearby field, the type of lunch we had would be brought to the area in the colorful fabric, for all to share. After nearly ten months in Bolivia, this was my first genuinely Bolivian lunch.
Lastly, the server brought a basket with several keychains attached to business cards for the restaurant. Each key chain had a small amulet. I chose a chacha puma, a figure that is half-man and half-puma.
What an enjoyable lunch!
During lunch, we talked about our final tour of the day, Puma Punku. Both Mariela and Nico spoke about people from the History Channel visiting the area a few years ago. Those visitors were more interested in Puma Punku than Tiwanaku. With that information in hand, when I got home, I looked up the episode in question. I watched Ancient Aliens season 4, episode 6 entitled The Mystery of Puma Punku. For anyone interested, it is well worth the investment of 44-minutes.
Following lunch, we drove the 600 meters (nearly 2,000 feet) to the Puma Punku archaeological site. We all three walked into the site, toward the first set of H-stones. As the name implies, these are stones formed in the shape of the letter H. Looking at them from the front, they are approximately 1-meter (3.2-feet) square. Many of the same questions come to mind. Where did the stones come from? How did they get here? How were they carved with no trace of tool marks? How were the precise 90-degree angles formed? What was the purpose of the stones? I am sure the list goes on and on.
Regarding where the stones originated, scientists are reasonably sure they came from a volcanic area, Kapia, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) away. That fact makes the question of how the stones made it to the site all the more curious. Some of the larger stones approach 100 tons.
Regarding usage, The Mystery of Puma Punku episode explores two theories; a door hinge system and a space vehicle launch system. Watching the show, one can understand how the two individuals arrived at their opinions. However, I question the validity of either theory based on what I observed at the site. If the H-stones were part of an extensive door hinge system, where are the other hinge components or the door? If the H-stones were part of a launch system, why are they presented in an upright position? Why were the H-stones not aligned on the ground, parallel with the earth? As one can see, the use of the word “mystery” is very appropriate for the Puma Punku site.
There are many other stones at the site, nearly all of which generate similar questions like those above. However, there is one stone that is more perplexing than all the others combined. At first glance, one might not even take notice of the stone. It lies flat on the ground. It is about 1.2-meters (4-feet) long by 0.5-meters (19-inches). There is a large groove with two cylindrical holes on either end of the slot, roughly in the center of the stone, running lengthwise. But the two most unexplained features are “drill” holes and parallel lines.
On the edge of the stone is a small ledge that is precisely at a 90-degrees angle. On that small ledge are multiple small holes, apparently made with a drill. They are roughly equidistant. On the face of the stone, near one end, are two tiny, parallel lines carved into the rock. The lines have the same precise 90-degree angles and equidistant drill holes. I do not think I need to write all the questions here, but suffice it to say, there are a lot of questions about this stone.
In The Mystery of Puma Punku, scientists try to duplicate the cuts and finishes on a small stone taken from the site. They used both a diamond wheel cutter and a laser cutter. Neither even came close to matching the features found on the rocks at Puma Punku. More questions…
The structure at Puma Punku is a raised, pyramid-type structure. At the west wall is a set of ancient stairs that were likely the main entry point. Like the Tiwanaku site, they are well worn. Other than the stairs, the construction at Puma Punku is much different. Precisely cut, the stones at the walls fit together well. The seams are so precise that one cannot insert a piece of paper between two rocks. I saw no signs of visible mortar. Again, questions…
Near the end of our tour of Puma Punku, we saw some rodents living under the stones. I believe they are called cui rabbits. Regardless, they were cute and fun to watch.
After our walking tour of Puma Punku, we drove back into the village of Tiwanaku. I wanted to take a few photographs of the town. The Church of Saint Peter of Tiwanaku, built between 1580 and 1612, is on the east side of the central plaza. Built with stones from the archaeological site, it also showcases two monoliths near the front entrance. Above the main entry door is a stained-glass depiction of a man’s face, possibly Saint Peter. Whoever it is, the man does not look happy at all.
Following the brief photography session, we drove back to the Museo Ceramico. The primary purpose was to use the toilets before our two-hour drive back to town. Emerging from the museum, we crossed the street to one of the souvenir stands. I bought a couple of items there and photographed our charming vendor.
At about 15:00, Nico turned the van toward El Alto, and we began our trek home. We made one more stop at the Cordillera Real (Royal Range of the Andes) overlook. Because of the lighting, the view was even more spectacular than it was in the morning.
This day was one of the most enjoyable tours I have ever taken. I recommend Tiwanaku, and more importantly, Mariela’s Bolivia to anyone that visits the La Paz area of Bolivia!